Was Hamlet mad? It’s an age-old question.
Is he doubtlessly unhinged and out of control? Or is he coolly aiming to avenge his father’s death by destroying his wretched Uncle Claudius and his mother, Queen Gertrude, who has taken Claudius to her bed too soon?
Yet Hamlet doesn’t mince words, and when he states his desire “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them,” he isn’t kidding around. Hamlet is first and foremost a man of action. Despite the play’s opening lines—“This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”—the melancholy Dane’s genius as a puppet master is certainly in evidence to the scheming Claudius and his ill-fated advisor Polonius, who recognizes the “method to his madness.”
The New Bear Players production at Bongo After Hours Theatre is a stripped-down affair with a cast of 10, no costumes to speak of, and simple lighting and sound. No one receives billing as director, either, which means the group can take the credit (the play is earnestly rendered, with a mixed bag of credible performances) as well as the blame (especially for one long stretch of ennui in Act 2 that threatens to vitiate the whole undertaking). At a running time of more than three hours, this production eclipses by at least a half-hour Sir Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning 1948 version, which bravely eliminated characters like Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras and even excised notable Hamlet soliloquies.
When it comes to Shakespeare, patience is rewarded. Hamlet rings with verbal truths, deep characterizations and the darkest elements of the human spirit. Even this flawed, no-frills effort can’t suppress that.
The key player is Matt Bassett, whose Hamlet is overcome with feelings of betrayal and thus inspired to wreak havoc on the kingdom’s social order. But out of his mind? Methinks not. Bassett starts fairly high up the ladder of emotional intensity, so much so that it seems he may have nowhere to go. But he backs off soon enough, shifting gears into a quirky performance that keeps viewers wondering about his character’s next move. It’s a freewheeling turn, and Bassett deserves serious applause for doing it his own way, without the heavy exhalation that can mar so-called classical acting.
As Claudius, Marc Mazzone plays it unctuous while remaining selfishly alert to Hamlet’s dangerous behavior. Phil Perry-Dixon is wholly eloquent as the pompous Polonius, and he also performs the role of the Gravedigger with crotchety comical charm. Valerie Meek’s Ophelia is overblown, but she’s an engaging stage presence, and manages to temper the histrionics enough to make us feel her pain (even if her emoting sometimes renders her lines unintelligible). Matthew Gregory Davis and Hannah Vaughan do nicely with an array of supporting roles, and Mark Creter gets good mileage out of his brief appearance as the Player King.
The Act 2 tedium is a disappointment in what is otherwise a surprisingly strong reading of a difficult script. If nothing else, New Bear Players might help prepare local theatergoers for Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s upcoming production of Macbeth.